torsdag 17 mars 2022

Reduced emissions from business travel (new research grant application)


I am the Principal Investigator (PI = "project leader") for a three-year research project, "Decreased CO2-emissions in flight-intensive organisations: from data to practice", but we usually just refer to it as our "FLIGHT" project. The other project members are Markus Robèrt, Elina Eriksson, Jarmo Laaksolahti and Aksel Biørn-Hansen, and despite the fact that I've had a two year long break in my blogging, I wrote a number of blog posts about this research project back then (see for example Jan 2019, Nov 2019, Jan 2020, Feb 2020, March 2020, March 2020 again, April 2020May 2020). That project will however end later this year, but we want to continue and to scale up our research! So when we saw there was a new call for applications in the very same research program (with the slightly-too-long title "Contribute to a faster transition to a transport-efficient society"), we jumped on it and I submitted our proposal on Wednesday - with 42 minutes to spare before the deadline (at midnight).

Our new application is called "Reduced emissions from business travel: Joint efforts to achieve Swedish universities’ climate goals" ["Minskade utsläpp från tjänsteresor: Gemensam kraftsamling för att nå lärosätenas klimatmål"] and it is hands-down the most ambitions research grant application I have submitted this far. Here's the 150 words/1000 characters summary of the project:

"Flying accounts for a large part of Swedish universities’ GHG emissions and it has proved difficult to reduce them. In an earlier project we identified a gap between climate targets and action plans that actually meet the targets. Yet the Paris Agreement, the Climate Framework for Swedish Higher Education Institutions and the latest regulatory letter from the Swedish government stipulate that universities have to reduce their emissions. This project aims to build upon earlier work and in collaboration with 16 Swedish universities develop a toolbox that provides them with knowledge and concrete tools to reach their climate targets. This includes development of our workshop methodology, standardized ways to chart, measure, understand, visualize, present, and compare CO2 emissions from flying as well as tailored policy recommendations. Project results will be of value for universities in Sweden and abroad, as well as for other governmental agencies and flight-intensive organizations."

Having poured over data and and having studied our own academic flying at KTH Royal Institute of Technology for a few years, we have come to wonder how representative KTH is compared to other Swedish universities (or other European universities, or other technical universities (polytechnics/institutes of technology)). So we now "go bigger" and we invited all Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in Sweden to join our proposed research project - and 16 did! Our partnering HEIs/universities in this project are (from north to south and from east to west:
A 17th university got in touch and wanted to join the project on the very day the application was to be handed in, but I unfortunately had to turn them down (the budget would have needed to be reworked and resubmitted and there just wasn't time). We do however in fact have a 17th project partners that isn't a university, but rather the The Swedish Environmental Protection Agency. What is cool about having them as a project partner is that all HEIs are mandated to report their climate data (including CO2 emissions from flying) to them on an annual basis. The majority of the top ten governmental agencies that flies the most in Sweden are in fact big universities - and most of those universities are project partners in our application. It's hard to see how the project consortium could have been stronger - but I did in fact try to also recruit the Ministry of Education, who, in their just-out annual "regulation letter" ["regleringsbrev"] to all Swedish HEIs required them to work with "reducing their emissions from business travel". The Ministry of Education however declined since they are "too political" and didn't think it was appropriate for them to be part of a specific research project - despite their interest in this specific issue. I totally understand them passing us up - no hard feelings - and especially with this being an election year and all...

So we have 17 project partners, but we also have an 18th "cooperation partner" and that is "The Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions", SUHF. The Association was founded in 1995 and 37 universities and university colleges in Sweden are members (16 universities, 17 university colleges and 4 university art colleges). That means we can reach the remaining HEIs (that are not part of our project) through SUHF. The Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions in fact have various expert and working groups including a just-formed "The Climate Network" group. The Climate Network will work with various climate-related issues at all Swedish HEIs, and reducing CO2 emissions from flying is one of the specific issues they will work with - so we have heavily overlapping interests. It could even be that our research project (from their perspective) can be seen as their "extended arm". We obviously haven't worked out the details because the Climate Network is just now starting up, and we of course don't know if our application will be approved, but everything is set up, the stars are aligned - and this could be the start of a beautiful friendship. 

It in fact looks like several factors pulls this issue (reduced emissions from business travel/academic flying) in the same direction. There is of course 1) the Paris Agreement, 2) the 2022 regulation letter from the Ministry of Education, 3) the Climate Framework for Swedish Higher Education Institutions and 4) The Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions' (SUHF's) Climate Network - as well as 5) our own earlier work that has helped us deepen our understanding of academic flying and hone our tools to practically work with these issues. So we hope our application will be approved - which we will find out sometime between June and October. If approved, our project would run for two years between 2023-2024. We think the project has the potential to help Swedish Higher Education Institutions lead the (necessary) transition to a sleeker future-proofed low-flying/low-emitting Anthropocene Academy - e.g. an academy where we do things differently (exact details remain to be figured out). We also hope the project results could serve as inspiration for universities abroad as well as for other Swedish governmental agencies and flight-intensive organizations in general. The Paris Agreement implies that we need to reduce our emissions by 50% every decade between 2020 to 2050 and if not now and if not here and if not us (in Sweden, at our Higher Education Institutions), then when and where will it happen and who will lead and speed up this (potentially painful but) necessary transition? I think it is time for a "small win" here in Sweden that could inspire others to follow our lead!

It's a bit hard to cut-and-paste text from the application since it is written in Swedish, but here's the most reference-heavy part for those researchers who want to know how we ground and orient ourselves in relation to previous research in the area:

In recent decades, CO2 emissions from travel in general (Bows-Larkin 2015) and from aviation in particular have increased markedly (Chakravarty et al. 2009, Cohen et al. 2011, Gössling & Humpe 2020, Kamb & Larsson 2018) and flying has become a natural part of the academic culture and of the job of successful researchers (Baer 2019, Glover et al. 2018, Higham et al. 2019, Hopkins et al. 2019, Parker & Weik 2014, Storme et al. 2017). While it is necessary to reduce universities' emissions from business travel (Cames et al. 2015, Glover et al. 2017, Higham & Font 2020, Le Quéré et al. 2015), the problem is thus extremely difficult; there are, on the one hand, legitimate reasons for researchers to travel as part of their jobs (to network and disseminate research results, etc.), but researches are, on the other hand, "bearers of truth" and originators of formulated climate goals, and they should thus lead by example in order to remain credible (Attarai et al. 2016, Attarai et al. 2019).

Academic flying is a topic that is increasingly discussed (Braun & Rödder 2021, Bjørkdahl & Franco Duharte 2022). In the last decade, a number of different studies have examined specific aspects such as the carbon footprint of a specific academic conference (Desiere 2016, Jäckle 2022, Orsi 2012), the carbon footprint of moving academic conferences online (Coroama et al. 2012, Jäckle 2021, Klöwer et al. 2020 ), the carbon footprint of a research article (Spinellis & Louridas 2013, Song et al. 2016), the carbon footprint of an individual research project (Achten et al. 2012, Waring et al. 2014, Aujoux et al. 2021), the carbon footprint of a research lab (Stohl 2008, Jahnke et al. 2020), carbon footprint in specific academic disciplines (Grant 2018, Eriksson et al. 2020, Chalvatzis & Ormosi 2020, Passalacqua 2021) and a single university's carbon footprint (Larsen et al. 2013, Wynes et al. 2019, Ciers et al. 2019, Ahonen et al. 2021). A large-scale French initiative is developing a set of (open source) tools to calculate the carbon footprint of a research lab (with tens or a few hundred members) (Mariette et al. 2021).

Our own previous research shows that the CO2 footprint from flying is very unevenly distributed and that those 20% of employees who fly the most at KTH are responsible for 89% of the total CO2 emissions (Pargman et al. 2020, Pargman et al. 2022, see also Appendix 1). If we assume that similar patterns recur in other contexts (e.g. academic flying is very unevenly distributed both within and between departments), this indicates that it will not be possible to achieve universities' ambitious sustainability goals unless those who fly the most reduce their flying. A positive interpretation, however, is that if you can get a smaller number of individuals to reduce their flying, any university's emissions can be significantly reduced. The conclusions that we have drawn based on analyses of KTH flight data correlates with what others have written about but on a global level using terms like “carbon inequality” (Barros & Wilk 2021, Chancel & Piketty 2015, Gore 2015, Gore 2020, Ivanova & Wood 2020)."

For more information about what we have done in the FLIGHT project, read our just-out 2022 book chapter “Who gets to fly?” (pdf here) from the publicly available open access book "Academic Flying And The Means Of Communication", or our 2021 paper “Exploring the Problem Space of CO2 Emission Reductions from Academic Flying” (pdf here).

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